Is a hunting and fishing store that sells guns a “river-related” use along the Peconic River?
And, if so, is a 10-by-50-foot “gun container” — where guns can be fired and tested in an indoor setting — a permitted accessory use to that river-related use?
Those were the two questions before the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals at a public hearing last Thursday night, where two speakers raised concerns about the type of semi-automatic weapons being sold there.
Thomas Newman of Riverhead owns Baits & Barrels at 1315 West Main St., the former location of the Fishermen’s Deli. Mr. Newman bought the property in 2015.
The property is zoned Riverfront Corridor, which limits permitted uses to dwellings, river-related retail and non-motorized open space recreation.
The business has been operating since 2016 and when it sought to add the gun container this year, the planning department said the owner would need a special permit from the Town Board to expand.
Mr. Newman argued that the store, which sells hunting and fishing equipment that is used on the adjacent Peconic River, is a river-related retail use.
He’s also seeking a ZBA opinion on whether the gun container can be considered an accessory use to the store, which would make it a permitted use. The gun container, which would not be open to the public, is not currently on site.
Mr. Newman said he has produced letters from his three adjacent neighbors in support of the proposal.
But Ruth Pollack, who lives on the other side of West Main Street, near Baits & Barrels, said there are semi-automatic weapons for sale in the store.
“I have hunted, I have friends who hunt … I can’t understand how a store that used to be a bait store for fishing could now have not only hunting rifles and pistols that literally could shoot through a wall, but semi-automatic weapons,” she said. “Is that something that fits into our neighborhood?”
She said there are families and children walking by in this area.
Charles Cuddy, the attorney for Mr. Newman, said the state Department of Environmental Conservation has indicated in approval plans for the site that it is river-related.
“We have fishing, we have hunting and we have boating as part of our place on the river,” he said, emphasizing that they believe it meets the criteria for river-related retail, which is permitted under zoning.
If the ZBA agrees that it’s permitted, they would also seek an opinion that the gun container is a permitted accessory use to the store, he said.
Most gun stores have accessory gun ranges, which are much larger than the container, he said.
Mr. Newman often buys guns at estate sales, and needs to know if they work, Mr. Cuddy said. The gun container would have two people in it at a time, one of them a supervisor from the store. The container has rubber ballistic walls that prevent bullets from ricocheting and keeps them inside the container, he said.
Mr. Newman would also train people to shoot property inside the container, he said.
The container would be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and be locked unless it is being used. It would only used by store personnel, Mr. Cuddy said.
Ms. Pollack said she has hunted and supports the Second Amendment, but feels there are dangerous weapons being sold at the store, which she has visited.
“I can’t see how a reasonable person could think testing guns is a river-related activity,” she said, questioning why someone would need a semi-automatic rifle to hunt ducks.
“I’m surprised that this kind of business is even being considered,” said her sister, Janet Pollack-Kantor, who lives in Southampton.
“These weapons in his store are not just duck weapons, they are not just semi-automatic rifles,” Ms. Pollack said. “They were lined up against the wall for everyone to purchase.”
“Citizens can’t purchase assault weapons, the law is very clear,” Mr. Newman said.
Mr. Newman has a gunsmith license from the Suffolk County sheriff, and a license to sell arms, as well as a license from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which inspects the store on a regular basis.
ZBA chairman Fred McLaughlin asked Mr. Newman what types of weapons are being sold at his store.
“Do you have M16s, do you have AK-47s?” he asked.
“No, M16s are fully automatic,” Mr. Newman said. “The SAFE Act has been in effect for many years now, since 2013. A civilian cannot purchase an AR-15, and cannot purchase an assault weapon. Assault weapons are very clearly defined. They cannot have more than 10 rounds, they can’t have a detachable magazine, or a collapsible stock. The law is very clear.”
He said his customers do use the Peconic River frequently during waterfowl season to hunt ducks.
The guns he sells that likely alarmed Ms. Pollack are guns that can be sold only to law enforcement. He said many of the East End police departments are customers.
“They have to buy their firearms somewhere,” he said.
Mr. Newman said that most of the hunting guns are semi-automatic.
“Semi-automatic sounds like a horrible term, but people either shoot with a bolt-action or a semi-automatic … that’s what people prefer to use,” he said.
The ZBA voted to hold the public hearing open for written comments until Monday, Aug. 19, and the board will render a decision at its next meeting on Aug. 22.
Correction: The store does not sell any automatic weapons, even to police departments.